Education

Consultants suggested these schools consolidate. Here’s why one district opted out.

How does the school consolidation process work?

Consultant Jim Rosborg talks about the school consolidation study he will be working on for schools in Freeburg, Smithton, and St. Libory.
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Consultant Jim Rosborg talks about the school consolidation study he will be working on for schools in Freeburg, Smithton, and St. Libory.

Although consultants recommended the schools in Freeburg, Smithton and St. Libory consolidate into one district, another board has decided to stop discussing it.

In a board resolution, Smithton’s leaders stated that they didn’t think their taxpayers should be on the hook for potential litigation costs that might come up in the future by consolidating with a district that has a history of child sex abuse allegations.

They learned from a study last year that Smithton residents would have to pay for future lawsuits filed against a consolidated district because of allegations against former Freeburg District 70 superintendent Rob Hawkins.

District 70, which serves students in elementary school like Smithton, has signed settlement agreements as recently as April with five men who accused Hawkins of sexually abusing them when they were between 9 and 15 years old.

They also accused the school administration at the time of failing to document or investigate boys’ complaints against Hawkins, which the district and former superintendents have denied. District 70 also denied any liability in the settlement agreements.

To date, the settlements total $11.5 million.

Rules for future litigation.jpg
One of the questions that consultants answered in their consolidation study for Freeburg, Smithton and St. Libory schools was whether all taxpayers would be responsible for the costs of litigation filed against leaders of the previously divided districts.

The St. Libory District 30 School Board opted out of talks with Freeburg and Smithton even before the study because it had “no intention” of consolidating, Superintendent Thomas Rude said in 2017.

“We believe we’re serving our students well. We’re in good financial shape. So there’s no real driving force to make us want to consolidate right now,” he said at the time.

Beyond the potential for litigation, Smithton District 130 school board members didn’t think consolidation would save a significant amount of money to make it worth giving up local control, according to the resolution.

There could be savings for taxpayers in consolidation if it resulted in a lower tax rate, fewer personnel or fewer buildings. There could also be costs.

Teachers would move to the highest pay scale that had been used in the original districts. The districts would cut their superintendents down to one but might have several new administrative positions.

Mike Weilmuenster, the attorney for four of the five men who filed federal lawsuits against Freeburg District 70, said he isn’t currently representing another John Doe with accusations against Hawkins.

Daniel Bradley, who represented John Doe 4, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Almost all of the settlement payments have been covered by District 70’s insurers. The settlements include:

$2.1 million to John Doe 1.

$124,000 to John Doe 2.

$3.1 million to John Doe 3.

$200,000 to John Doe 4.

$6 million to John Doe 5.

District 70 agreed to pay $1 million of John Doe 5’s settlement, which is the subject of a civil lawsuit the district filed against its insurer. The insurance company has been ordered to reimburse District 70 for the lawsuit, court documents show.

Hawkins had been a teacher in Freeburg District 70 before becoming an administrator. He worked as the district’s superintendent until his death in 2009, which was ruled a suicide.

His successor, Superintendent Tomi Diefenbach, declined to respond to Smithton’s concerns about the potential for future litigation.

Freeburg District 77 Superintendent Greg Frerking said the two Freeburg districts would continue talking about consolidation.

All four districts still plan to work together to make sure their curriculum is consistent from St. Libory to Freeburg and Smithton, because most of those students go on to attend Freeburg High School together.

Meanwhile, Smithton is also trying to address a growing student population.

It is planning to ask taxpayers in the April election for permission to spend $5 million on a building expansion. The ballot measure failed in November by just 21 votes, according to the St. Clair County clerk’s office.

Read Smithton’s board resolution summary

“The Smithton Community Consolidated School District #130 board of education does not believe significant operational efficiencies and cost savings will result from consolidation, does not believe incentive payments (if appropriated) would compensate for the loss/sharing of existing funds held in certificate of deposit and savings accounts, does not believe Smithton residents should share the burden of future litigation liability resulting from future allegations due to past misconduct and does not believe ceding local control of elementary education is in the best interest of Smithton taxpayers, staff and, most importantly, students.”

The metro-east is home for investigative reporter Lexi Cortes. She was raised in Granite City, went to school in Edwardsville and now lives in Collinsville. Lexi has worked at the Belleville News-Democrat since 2014, winning multiple state awards for her investigative and community service reporting.

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